4. Harry Houdini may have been a spy for the British and American governments
There is no shortage of internet sites which report Harry Houdini as having been a spy for both Scotland Yard and agencies of the US government. Houdini was among the most widely traveled celebrities in the world at the turn of the 20th century, famed for his illusions and his escapes from seemingly impossible situations. He was known to visit police departments and jails during his travels, having himself handcuffed and locked into cells, from which he would promptly escape. His visits confounded the police and generated publicity for his shows. Some claim that Houdini demonstrated to the police how he did it, which would have been out-of-character for any illusionist, but especially for him.
There is a marked shortage of evidence that Houdini worked as a spy for Scotland Yard, which in any case did little of the British intelligence work other than in Ireland and in Britain. Other sites claim Houdini was hired by agencies in the United States and elsewhere to provide training to agents in escape techniques. Once again, there is little in the way of evidence other than a speculative biography published in 2006. It based its conclusions on cryptic diary entries of Scotland Yard personnel, with references to documents received from “HH”. At best, Houdini may have passed along his observations made during his extensive travels, but evidence of his serving as a spy for any agency remains as elusive as the return of his spirit at annual Halloween seances.
5. Marlene Dietrich offered to spy for the US government during World War II
Marlene Dietrich was an actress of renown in Europe, achieving acclaim on the stages of Berlin in the 1920s. She performed in several Hollywood films in the 1930s, both silent and talkies. By the mid-1930s she was considered to be toxic at the box office and she returned to Europe. While in London in 1936 Nazi agents asked her to return to Germany. They guaranteed she would be the biggest female film star in Europe. She refused, returned to the United States, and applied for American citizenship. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered her a subversive and opened a lengthy investigation of her. In 1942 Dietrich turned the tables on the FBI, offering to use her extensive contacts in Europe to gain information on resistance activities.
Before 1944 she toured the United States extensively on war bonds drives. In 1944 she made the first of several USO tours of soldiers at the front, performing before live audiences, and informing the OSS of activities in recently liberated sections of France and Italy. She also made recordings in German for the OSS to be played on European radio, to demoralize the German troops. While the FBI was investigating her as a possible enemy agent, she was providing clandestine information to the OSS. In 1947 she was presented the Medal of Freedom by President Truman for her work for the OSS over the course of the war. A large portion of her FBI file was destroyed in 1980, long before the rest of it was released.
6. There was a British double-agent in World War II known as Greta Garbo, but not the Greta Garbo
As with Harry Houdini, numerous sites claim without evidence that Greta Garbo worked with MI6 throughout the war as a messenger and spy. They offer little in the way of evidence. They also ignore the fact that Garbo herself once told a friend, Sven Broman, “I would have died of shame if I had ever had anything to do with spying”. There is also no evidence that Garbo left the United States between the years 1938 and 1946. There was however a spy and double agent by the name of Garbo in Great Britain during the Second World War. His name was Juan Pujol Garcia. Garcia approached the British about spying on the Germans as early as 1939 and was rejected.
Garcia set himself up as a spy for the Germans in Lisbon, working for the Abwehr. He used British tourist guides and recently seen newsreels to create reports back to Berlin which seemed to be coming from London. In April, 1942, MI5 moved him to Britain and assigned him the code name Garbo. Garcia was a leading contributor to the success of Operation Fortitude, the deception campaign over the time and place of the Overlord Invasion in 1944. Garbo was so convincing to the Germans – his Abwehr codename was Alaric – that he was awarded the Iron Cross in July, 1944, via radio. At the end of November Garbo was awarded an MBE by King George VI. His many activities as a double agent are the likely reason for the unsubstantiated reports of Greta Garbo spying for the British during World War II.
7. Frank Sinatra associated with mob figures, but he wasn’t a spy
Frank Sinatra is often reported on websites as being both a spy for the FBI and an informant about his various mob connections. His FBI file details his many connections with mob figures, including Sam Giancana, whom Sinatra considered a close friend. Mob figures were frequent guests in his home and at his performances, from the early 1940s until the end of his life. The FBI eventually held a file on the entertainer which contained thousands of pages, among them their rejection of his offer to serve as a confidential informant. The FBI flatly rejected the offer, writing across a report of one such meeting, “We want nothing to do with him”.
Sinatra received an exemption from the draft during World War II, for “psychological reasons” as well as a punctured eardrum. Though the FBI file lists his exemption as legitimate, he often joked about it to friends during and after the war. The websites which claim he spied for the government make their assertions based on hearsay and support them with little evidence. Some claim he used his private plane to whisk people in and out of the country at the behest of the CIA or other government agency. But no evidence exists to support the claims. Twice in his lifetime Sinatra used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the file the FBI had on him, but he did nothing to challenge the documentation, and continued to consort with Mafiosi until the end of his life.
8. Cary Grant informed the British Government about German sympathizers
According to biographer Charles Higham, at least two of the most popular leading men in Hollywood in the 1940s – Errol Flynn and Cary Grant – were involved in espionage, though on opposite sides. Higham reported that Flynn was a Nazi sympathizer who had visited Germany before the war and even met with Adolf Hitler. Grant, who was born in Britain and had several relatives living in Bristol during the war, revealed Flynn’s pro-Nazi leanings to British agents in Washington, and kept them informed about other Nazi sympathizers in Hollywood. He also worked with Roald Dahl and other British agents in shaping the British propaganda messages aimed at discrediting America First and other isolationist groups in the United States.
Flynn was an Australian and was known in Hollywood circles for being anti-British, as well as antisemitic. According to Higham’s biography, which has no shortage of detractors, he first started working with the German secret police – the Gestapo – in 1937 while on a trip to Spain. Flynn’s role was identifying those surreptitiously opposing Franco during the Spanish Civil War. When he returned to Hollywood his pro-Nazi views were noted by many, and Grant kept British agents in Washington aware of Flynn’s activities and companions throughout the war years. Other historians dispute the account completely. Whether the tales of Flynn are true or not, the reports of Grant working with British agents are documented in the reports of MI6 and in the diaries of many participants.
9. Allan Pinkerton was a spy during the American Civil War
Allan Pinkerton is famous for creating the Pinkerton Detective Agency, with its memorable motto, “We Never Sleep”. After the Civil War the agency was heavily involved in chasing down railroad bandits and in providing strikebreakers to industry. In 1862 Pinkerton served as the head of what became the Union Intelligence Service. In that role, Pinkerton worked in the field as a counter-intelligence officer, under the alias E.J. Allen, with the rank of a Confederate Major. Pinkerton traveled across the South in the first year of the war, estimating the strength of the developing Confederate armies. He mapped fortifications, counted artillery and other arms, and reported on supply chains and major supply depots.
Pinkerton barely escaped with his life after his cover was blown while in Memphis, and he returned to Washington. He was relieved as the head of Union Intelligence by Lafayette Baker. After the war the Pinkerton Detective Agency he founded became internationally famous, and Pinkerton himself was a major American celebrity. He made sure he remained one with numerous self-serving books and newspaper articles. Pinkerton’s work as a Union spy was mostly documented by his own hand, in several “true” accounts as well as novels and fictional short stories, which he claimed to have been based on actual events in the American South.
It would be a bit of a stretch to call Walt Disney a spy. Informant is a better descriptive. When his workers went on strike in 1941, the paternalistic Disney couldn’t believe they would do so without outside agitators. He believed communists had influenced his workers. For the rest of his life Disney worked with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to identify those he considered to have communist leanings. Disney had corresponded privately with Hoover as early as 1936, but his FBI file did not begin until 1940 or so, according to the surviving documents, which number well over 700 pages. Much of them remain heavily redacted.
Disney also appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he happily named those people he “believed” to be communists, leading to their being placed on the notorious blacklist. His relationship with the FBI was so cozy he offered free use of the Disneyland facilities to agents, as well as investigators working for various anti-communist activities. He based his accusations of individuals supporting communism on a variety of opinions, such as, “Number 1, that he had no religion and, Number 2, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theater studying art direction, or something”. Disney made the comment about an artist he had hired to work in his animation department, David Hilberman.
11. Baseball player Moe Berg spied for the OSS and CIA
Contrary to popular belief, the baseball career of Moe Berg was over when the OSS approached him to work for them in Europe. Berg was a polyglot, having studied seven languages at Princeton University. Knowledge of languages was and remains a useful tool in spycraft. The OSS sent Berg on missions to Europe during World War II. He was used to obtain information regarding partisan resistance groups in the Balkans. He was also dispatched to learn as much as possible from physicists and scientists about the state of the German nuclear research program. Berg made the determination on his own that the Germans were not close to building an atomic bomb after attending several lectures and talking with physicists.
After the war the OSS was replaced by the CIA. Berg, who was Jewish, approached the CIA about working for them in Israel. He was turned down. In 1952, Berg was sent to Europe by the CIA with orders to learn all he could about the hydrogen bomb project underway in the Soviet Union. Berg traveled to Europe, interviewed those of his former contacts he could find, and returned to the United States. The CIA officer responsible for the operation claimed that Berg had nothing to report, and that the mission had been a failure and a waste of money. In 1955 the Soviets detonated their first thermonuclear device, a major event in the ongoing Cold War.
12. John Wayne worked for the OSS, though what he did is unknown
Many Hollywood actors, producers, and directors served in the Second World War openly. Jimmy Stewart flew combat missions over Europe with the Eight Air Force. Clark Gable flew as a gunner on a few missions. So did Walter Matthau. During the war, John Wayne did not serve in the military, at least not on active duty. He did nothing to alter his draft status as 1A, the highest rating, but his employer did. Republic Studios threatened Wayne with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract and worked with the Selective Service administration to ensure that their most valuable actor under contract was not subjected to the draft.
Wayne applied to join the OSS and Donovan personally approved his application. Wayne never received the approval. He did make a tour of South Pacific bases during the winter of 1943 and 1944, during which time he claimed he gathered information for the use of military intelligence and the OSS, but no records have been revealed to support his assertion. After his death, according to records in the National Archives, a document thanking Wayne for his services in the OSS, signed by Donovan, was sent to the actor. What services he was thanked for remains unknown. Wayne’s failure to engage in active military service led to criticism of the actor for the rest of his life.
13. John Steinbeck worked for the OSS as a propagandist
Noted writer John Steinbeck was recruited by the OSS immediately after its creation. He was hired to produce propaganda, and his first contribution was the novel The Moon is Down (1942). The story featured an unnamed country and its occupation by an oppressive power, which was widely accepted to be Norway, occupied by Nazi Germany. He then worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, retaining his ties with Donovan’s agency. In addition to preparing propaganda for the agency, Steinbeck gathered intelligence on both sides of the lines. Steinbeck also saw combat action, and was wounded during the war.
After the war, in the 1950s, Steinbeck lived in Paris for a time, writing a series of articles about life in the city for a French magazine. At the same time, he gathered information about the communist faction in France, as well as the French nuclear program, for the CIA. Much of his files in the CIA and FBI were shredded in 2005, and what survived was heavily redacted, so the extent of his spying remains highly speculative. Letters in the CIA files indicate that on a tour of the Mediterranean region prior to his residence in Paris, he was tasked with gathering information “on any political developments in the areas through which you travel”. It was signed by Walter Bedell Smith, then Director of Central Intelligence.
14. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg ran a spy network for the OSS
Arthur Goldberg was practicing law when the United States entered World War II. He joined the OSS in 1943. After a stint managing the Labor Desk, OSS Director William J. Donovan assigned him to the Secret Intelligence Branch. Goldberg was sent to London with the task of creating a network of spies and resistance workers in occupied countries in Europe. Through operatives already in place and others which infiltrated Nazi dominated Europe, Goldberg contacted labor groups and resistance organizations. Through them he encouraged continuing resistance to the Germans, and gathered intelligence to support the special operations units of the OSS and British Intelligence.
Goldberg’s network included French workers which opposed both the Nazis and the Vichy government. He also controlled agents working in ostensibly neutral Sweden, occupied Norway, Hungary, and in Germany. After the war he returned to the law, developing a solid reputation as an expert in labor relations. In 1961 President Kennedy appointed him Secretary of Labor. Later in his administration he appointed Goldberg to the United States Supreme Court, a seat he held until he resigned in 1965 to accept an appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations.
15. Graham Greene served as a spy for British Intelligence
British author Graham Greene was well-known as a novelist and suspense writer before World War II. During the war he worked for MI6. One suggestion made by Greene to his boss, the notorious Kim Philby, was a brothel on Portugal’s island of Guinea. Greene suggested staffing the brothel with trained spies in order to extract information from the Vichy French and German officers who would frequent the enterprise. Greene later wrote that he made the suggestion as a lark, and was surprised to be summoned to a meeting at which it was discussed seriously among senior intelligence officers. Ultimately, the idea was dropped.
Greene was posted in Freetown, an important port on the coast of Africa. From there he ran a network of agents which monitored the agents of Germany and Vichy France, obtained information on ship movements, and practiced counterintelligence. Greene actively recruited agents for the service, and kept notes from which he created the plots of many of the spy and espionage novels he wrote following the war. MI6 kept his activity classified for decades after the war, finally admitting that the novelist had been a spymaster in 2010. The FBI built a heavy file on Greene due to his suspected communist sympathies. Those suspicions were strengthened when it was revealed that Kim Philby had been a double agent, working for the Soviets during World War II and the Cold War which ensued.
16. Josephine Baker was a spy for the French Resistance during World War II
Josephine Baker was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, a child of an unknown father and a marginally employed mother. She was married and divorced twice before the age of 20. Baker was the name of her second husband, her birth name was recorded as McDonald. By 1921 she was performing as a singer and dancer in St. Louis and later toured in vaudeville shows. In 1925 she performed in Paris, France. There she rapidly rose to fame as an exotic dancer and performer. Silent films followed. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. She interacted with the rich, the politically connected, and the leaders of pre-war France by 1939.
When the French declared war on Germany following the latter’s invasion of Poland in 1939, she was recruited to spy for France. After the French surrender, she continued to use her connections and her notoriety to surreptitiously collect information from German and Vichy officials, which she passed along to the French Resistance. She carried messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music, and in notes pinned in her underwear, to agents in neutral countries such as Portugal and Sweden. She traveled with an entourage disguised as an entertainment troupe, working closely with agents from Britain and later the American OSS. After the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her services as a spy and agent for the Allies during World War II.
17. Actor Sterling Hayden worked for the OSS during the Second World War
Sterling Hayden is largely forgotten now, though in the 1950s and 1960s he was a prolific actor. He was the performer concerned with the corruption of bodily fluids in Dr. Strangelove, as well as the corrupt police officer shot and killed by Michael Corleone in The Godfather. During World War II, the motion picture star played a different role entirely. He was an agent and operative of the OSS. Hayden enlisted in the army under his own name, broke an ankle during training, and was discharged. Using a false name – John Hamilton – he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and performed well enough in training that he was sent to Officer Candidate School for commissioning. There he caught the attention of OSS Director Bill Donovan.
Hayden, under the name Hamilton, served in Italy and the Balkans, interacting with partisans and providing supplies and support to diverse groups. Donovan also tasked him to monitor and report on the communist leanings of several partisan organizations. Hayden – as Hamilton – established rescue teams for downed Allied airmen and underground safe houses and trails for them to find their way back to safety. He also reported to Donovan on the activities and plans of Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito. At the end of the war Hayden received awards from the United States, Italy and Yugoslavia for his service, all in the name of John Hamilton.
18. Benjamin Franklin was a double agent while in Paris during the American Revolution
Benjamin Franklin’s status as a Founding Father is unquestioned. So is his standing as a scientist, inventor, writer, diplomat, and philosopher. Less known is his status as a spy. Franklin, while serving as one of America’s representatives to France during the Revolution, was also a spy for the British, though not for the party in power. From his long service in London as Massachusetts’ representative to the Court of St. James, Franklin knew many influential British politicians and businessmen sympathetic to the American cause. He made sure that those men were kept abreast of the events which brought about French and Spanish support of the Revolution, as well as the financial support from the Dutch.
Franklin’s wily use of the British politicians and businessmen to shift public opinion in Britain did not go unnoticed. Frequent complaints were made that the British seemed to be aware of confidential discussions between the American commissioners almost immediately. John Adams confided his suspicions of Franklin to his diary and to his wife, Abigail. But Franklin persisted, giving the British information which shaped not only their war effort, but their position in the negotiations in Paris. It was from Franklin they learned that the United States would never allow a separate state for the occupation of Indian tribes on the Northwestern border, a demand the British dropped in 1781.
19. George Washington practiced a technique later known as disinformation
George Washington is reputed to have been unable to tell a lie. In reality, he was one of the greatest deceivers in history. He practiced all of the arts which later became known as espionage. Washington created, and directly supervised, intelligence networks throughout the thirteen rebellious colonies, using devices with which James Bond would later be familiar. These included invisible inks, patch codes, wheel codes, information dead drops, personal ads in newspapers, messages hidden in Bible verses, and many other techniques. Washington took a personal interest in all of them, intended to not only keep him updated on British activity, but also to deceive the enemy regarding his own intentions.
Washington was particularly enamored with the technique which another George – George Orwell – would in a later day name disinformation. His agents were given information to provide the British in the shops and taverns of Philadelphia and New York which described his troops strength and dispositions in terms advantageous to the Americans, causing the British to respond accordingly. Washington’s deceptions caused the British in New York to continue preparations to defend against an assault on the city even as the French and American armies were on the march to Yorktown in 1781. Spying and counterespionage were major tools of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War, applied directly by its Commander in Chief.
20. Julia Child worked for the OSS during the Second World War
Strictly speaking, Julia Child was not a spy, but an intelligence officer. When the United States entered World War II she attempted to join the Army. Rejected because of her height (6’2″) she volunteered for service with the newly formed OSS. William Donovan accepted the graduate of Smith College, and she worked for him directly as a research assistant. Initially her duties were strictly clerical, creating and maintaining files which contained the identities and whereabouts of OSS employees. Gradually she became more involved with the agency’s many activities, including the development of a shark repellent for which she was largely responsible.
In 1944 she was sent to Ceylon, and later to Kunming. It was there she became exposed to the French cooking for which she later became famous. She worked as an office administrator, supervising the activities of dozens of agents and operatives. Her posting exposed her to highly classified communications and activities which preceded the invasion of the Malay Peninsula, and required her to coordinate the activities and reports of other Allied intelligence services, including Army and Navy Intelligence and the British activities in the area. Following the war her husband Paul, also an OSS member, was stationed in France, and Julia went with him, studying French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu, and discovering her life’s calling.
21. Margaretha Zelle – Mata Hari – was likely not a spy at all
Mata Hari was a dancer and entertainer who falsely claimed an exotic background as part of her stage persona. She claimed to be of Javanese background in pre-World War I Paris, danced in Javanese costume when she didn’t dance naked, and became celebrated throughout Europe. In truth she was Dutch born, sexually promiscuous, and of no particular political orientation. Known internationally for her wide range of lovers, she was regarded as both scandalous and a sex symbol. During World War I she was approached by the French, Belgian, British, and German governments with requests for her to obtain military information from her various consorts to serve their respective interests.
When she was finally charged with spying for the Germans by the French, who claimed her actions had led to the deaths of “50,000 soldiers”, there was little evidence to support the action. Neither the French nor the British, who had previously detained and strenuously interrogated her, could offer evidence of her spying for the Germans, beyond receiving money from a German embassy. She claimed the money was payment for sexual services. No evidence of any military secrets being exchanged was presented, and none has ever been discovered. She was convicted by a French court and executed by a French firing squad. Later research revealed that the prosecutor presented falsified information at her trial. In all likelihood the most famous female spy in history was not a spy at all.
22. Chuck Barris falsely claimed to be a spy and assassin for the CIA
Before he found fame and fortune creating game shows for television, Chuck Barris wrote the song Palisades Park, which became a major hit for Freddy Cannon. Barris then created television shows such as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. Barris’s television productions and investments made him a wealthy man, though he was seldom seen on camera before the creation of The Gong Show in 1976. In 1984 Barris published an autobiography which explained why he was seldom on camera. According to his story, he worked throughout the 1960s and early 1970s as a spy and assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency. A movie based on the book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was released in 2002.
Barris’s claims to have been employed by the CIA as an assassin were believed by many, though they were immediately refuted by the agency. To some, the refutation is in itself not a denial, given the mission and reputation of the agency. Barris recanted the claim in 1984, saying that he had applied to work for the agency and was denied. He told an interviewer that the tales of his working as an assassin in the book were simply a fantasy of what he would likely have done for the agency. There are those who still believe that he worked for the CIA during the 1960s, and that the actions are being covered up by the government. Such is the nature of espionage. Truth and lies are often indistinguishable.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: